The Curse of Sherlock Holmes: The Basil Rathbone Story by David Clayton Review
By Sarah Morgan
Did you grow up in the 1980s? And if so, do you remember when BBC Two used to show classic movies at tea-time?
Charlie Chan, Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan and even the odd silent movie aired on a regular basis. But my personal favourite was the Sherlock Holmes series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as the sleuth and his sidekick Dr Watson.
Back then I had no idea about Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, or that they were filmed on a backlot in Hollywood rather than on the smog-shrouded streets of London they depicted. And neither did I care.
Instead, I was swept away by the stories, the seemingly unsolvable crimes and the dashing air of adventure and derring-do in each one. Even now, I imagine that for generations of film-lovers, mention either Rathbone or Holmes and the other springs to mind – despite Benedict Cumberbatch’s best efforts to change that.
Whether the actor would have been thrilled about it remains to be seen. David Clayton’s slim but compelling biography suggests he might not – he came to loathe his association with the character – but as he died with little money to his name and with his career in the doldrums, despite having won a Tony Award and two Oscar nominations, he might simply be pleased to remembered at all.
“Dominated by Sherlock”
Clayton’s book, perhaps understandably, is dominated by Sherlock which, in some ways, is the least interesting part of Rathbone’s story, purely because it’s the subject with which readers are more than likely most familiar.
I would rather have delved more into other aspects of his career, particularly the latter part in which he worked for AIP, a low-budget company that was, in some ways, the US’s version of Britain’s Hammer Films.
Those movies, including Queen of Blood and Tales of Terror, brought him into contact with a new generation of film-makers, including Curtis Harrington, Dennis Hopper and Roger Corman, as well as fellow veterans Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. It would have been interesting to hear more of his views on those, and perhaps his colleagues’ views on him, instead of dismissing the movies as trash (some of them are genuinely rather good).
Having said all that, I did learn more about Rathbone than I did before reading the book, and it acts as a decent introduction to his wider career. It’s then up to any interested parties to hunt down copies of Rathbone’s films to see if there truly was more to him than Holmes.
Now, what’s my eBay login again…
‘The Curse of Sherlock Holmes: The Basil Rathbone Story’ by David Clayton is published by The History Press, £18.99 hardback